Over 20 caught in avalanches across the Alps

Sunday, 9 December 2012

For anyone who has been watching the recent snowfall and weather patterns in the Alps recently, it has been very clear that the avalanche risk has been exceptionally high. A relativley shallow snowpack (deep for this time of year, but still shallow compared to later in the season), combined with consistently low temperatures, fresh snow and high winds has resulted in a poorly bonded snowpack in many areas. Unfortunately many skiers and boarders merely see high snowfall as meaning that a good time is iminent.

After the recent fatality at Tignes you might think people would be extra vigilant ? Unfortunately not. Over the weekend there were multiple serious avalanches across the Alps in Engelberg (Switzerland), St Moritz (Switzerland), Verbier (Switzerland), Montgenevre (Italy) and Dios (France). Details are still a little sketchy, but here's what we've managed to find out so far:

At 11am Sunday in Engelberg an avalanche was triggered by a group of off-piste skiers. The avalanche was 300m wide and travelled for a distance of 800m. A total of 11 people were taken by the slide, with two Swedes being the worst injured. Fortunately no-one was killed, and everyone was recovered from the debris quickly. An inquiry has been launched into the cause of the accident by the authorities.

On the same day, in Marguns (near St Moritz), an avalanche was triggered by three off-piste skiers who had ventured off the piste in search of fresh powder. Two of those involved were injured after being partially buried. The other skier rode the debris for 300m, but fortunately was unharmed. Pisteurs arrived quickly and were able to dig out all those involved.

In Verbier two men in their 20s were caught in an avalanche at the Col des Mines on Sunday. A woman skiin with them managed to avoid the avalanche. None were wearing transceivers or carrying any safety equipment. One of those caught by the slide was taken by helicopter to Sion hospital, but the other was unharmed. The avalanche was 200m wide and travelled 600m before coming to a rest. the Col des Mines is an off-piste itinerary, and is not patrolled by pisteurs. Rescue teams with search dogs were soon on site after the accident. The avalanche was approximately 1m deep and rescuers described the victims as being exceptionally lucky to be alive.

In Montgenevre on Sunday a skier was buried by an avalanche. The rescue teams were initially unaware of the accident as it happened on the Italian side of the resort and witnesses were allegedly trying to dial the French rescue number (112) - this number does not work in Italy. Anyone wanting rescue in Italy should dial 118. Seven ski intsructors eventually arrived at the scene and beginning probing debris for victims. The victim's body was recovered this morning and he was pronounced dead at the scene. Some have publicly criticised the authorities for not having integrated rescue numbers.

In Dios (Southern France) a ski tourer has been seriously injured in an avalanche near the Col de la Chaudiere. After receiving an emergency call a rescue helicopter was launched and the victim was recovered after several hours of partial burial. No further details are known at this stage.

Comment: Although the amount of snow in Europe is exceptionally high at the moment people do not seem to be aware of the dangers. Even in ski areas, slopes normally skied throughout the season have not yet been well travelled. Hence the snow should be treated as true back-country. The snowpack is not currently well bonded, with many regions at 4/5 on the avalanche danger scale. Consistenly cold temperatures have also slowed the consolidation process needed to bond the snowpack together. The mountains are a truly fantastic place to be in winter. However, they should be treated with respect. Anyone venturing off-piste should check the avalanche bulletin, plan their trip accordingly, and be fully equipped with a minimum of transceiver, shovel and probe.

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